While 2020 was a dumpster fire of a year in so many ways, it was actually something of a banner year for food tech, and there was a lot to celebrate in our little corner of the world, including:
- More venture capital money flowed into food tech startups than in 2019, helping existing startups scale and creating a new cohort of innovative companies.
- History was made when the first cell-cultured meat went on sale at a restaurant in Singapore.
- While the pandemic decimated the restaurant industry, we saw companies adapt, and communities rise up to help.
I checked in with the 2020 food tech predictions I made at the end of 2019. Back then, prior to the pandemic, I had said two big trends to look out for was the rise of equity crowdfunding and semi-permanent pop-up retail.
Turns out, I was 1 for 2 on that count. Equity crowdfunding certainly took off, especially for food-related robots. As I recently wrote:
Equity crowdfunding, or eschewing institutional venture capital money in favor of opening investment up to just about anyone, did seem to catch on this year. Small Robot Company, Winc, Miso Robotics, Mellow, Piestro, Kiwibot, Renewal Mill, Bobacino and Blendid all launched or announced equity crowdfunding campaigns this year.
Pop-up retail, on the other hand, got pushed aside by the pandemic. As I also recently wrote:
These small, plug-and-play retail environments are easy to set up inside office buildings (or just about anywhere, really). They could, for instance, allow a grocer like Safeway to build a small, unattended Safeway-branded store in a lobby, or a hospital or train station. This is a lot cheaper than building out or retrofitting an existing space. And since there’s no cashier, they can be more economical to run.
But the pandemic forced people to avoid offices and other high-traffic areas, and subsequently pushed them into record amounts of online grocery shopping from home. As such, retailers needed to focus less on creating new retail spaces and more on their own logistics and fulfillment to accommodate all those new e-commerce orders.
My colleague Jenn Marston also reflected back on the past year and concluded that 2020 was the year indoor farming got big and ghost kitchens got complicated.
There certainly were a lot of notable happenings. InFarm further expanded its concept of placing its pod-like mini farms in grocery stores. A number of companies, including Aerogarden, MyFood, Rise Gardens, Aspara, and Farmshelf offered vertical gardens built for the consumer home. And on that note, at CES 2020, both LG and GE unveiled concepts to turn indoor farming into the next big home appliance category. Manufacturers of at-home farms, in particular, reported spikes in demand resulting from the pandemic and our sudden collective interest in at-home food sovereignty.
Ghost kitchens were very much alive and kicking up a storm in 2020, but they weren’t a once-size-fits-all panacea for a restaurant industry devastated by COVID. As Jenn wrote:
Over the last year, we saw the growing popularity of the so-called “dark kitchens.” These are underutilized kitchen spaces restaurants are using to fulfill their delivery and off-premises orders. Fat Brands is one notable example of a company using its own restaurants as dark kitchens for sister brands. Ordermark/NextBite, meanwhile, built out its business this year of pairing restaurants with unused kitchen space in order to deliver (literally and metaphorically) more meals from virtual restaurant concepts. Another great example is Hi Neighbor, a San Francisco restaurant group that had to close because of the pandemic. Its response was to use one of its shuttered kitchens to accept and fulfill delivery orders for its own virtual concepts. Hi Neighbor is just one local example of a trend happening nationwide.
Alongside those investments, even more formats emerged of what a ghost kitchen might look like and how it could become more efficient. ClusterTruck, which has operated a vertically integrated delivery business for years, teamed up with Kroger to turn the latter’s deli counters into a kind of ghost kitchen. More recently, Crave Collective opened in Boise, Idaho to show us what a fine-dining take on a ghost kitchen looks like. And the QSRs, finally got onboard, with everyone from Chipotle to McDonald’s unveiling new store formats that minimize or eradicate the dining room and are in effect their own version of a ghost kitchen.
But enough talk of what’s already happened. Let’s look ahead to see what think will happen next year in food tech.
2021 Food Tech Predictions
The good news is that since 2020 was a good year for food tech, 2021 can build on that to become a spectacular one.
There is really so much innovation happening across all of food tech that it’s hard to narrow our predictions down. But Jenn and I took a stab at it, and here’s what we think you should look out for in 2021.
Cultured Meat Milestones Will Accelerate – Investment will grow and excitement will build as more companies move out of the labs and into early pilot production facilities for their cultured meat products. Other countries will follow Singapore’s lead and give regulatory green light for the sale of cultured meat. And finally, we’ll see the debut of more cultured meat products in high-end cuisine as chefs look to achieve similar firsts for their restaurants.
Fermentation Powers Growth in Exciting New Consumer-Facing Products – Looking forward, you can expect lots of new products to debut powered by precision fermentation in 2021. MeliBio, a maker of bee-free honey, expects to debut their first product in 2021, while Clara Foods plans to release its animal-free egg this year as well, and I expect to see more companies like Brave Robot rise up and offer new products that to products built around precision fermented food platforms created by companies like Perfect Day.
CRISPR and Gene-Edited Food See Accelerated Product Pipelines – While there has been lots of focus on CRISPR-derived future food innovation, I expect changes to US regulatory oversight of gene-edited animal products to create a wave of new interest in developing CRISPR-based product lines from both startups and established food product companies.
3D Food Printing Moves Beyond the Cake – Companies like Redefine Meat are making high-volume plant-based meat printers and plan to have meat in supermarkets in a year, while others like Meat-Tech are showing off prototypes of cultured meat printers. One of the challenges for food printing will be scaling the technology to make it quicker, something Novameat is working on as it begins to enter commercial rollout phase of its plant-based meat printing technology.
Read his full story here.
(Excerpt) Investments in 2020 were, understandably, geared towards reopening the dining room in ways that were seemingly safer and less dependent on human-to-human interactions. However, as restaurants closed and reopened, then closed again, interest shifted to ghost kitchens and restaurant formats with little to no front of house in their design. As we’ve said many times over the last couple months, the restaurant industry is not retreating from this focus on to-go orders. Even when dining rooms are once again safe to eat in, ghost kitchens will remain and QSRs will have fewer seats indoors.
That makes now, heading into 2021, the time for optimizing kitchen operations.
Anyone who’s spent time in the restaurant back of house knows it’s in a league of its own when it comes to orchestrated chaos. Un-orchestrated, too, since dozens of variables can change at any moment and affect the speed and quality at which food leaves the kitchen and gets to customers. Missing ingredients. Workers calling in sick last minute. Eggs cooked too early and drying out under the heat lamp. All of these things the food, the customer experience, and a restaurant’s margins, the majority of which are made and lost in the kitchen.
Read her full 2021 take here.
In-store shopping is going to look a lot more like Vegas next year. Grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores will start installing big, bright LED screens on cooler doors and store shelves. These screens will allow for dynamic pricing, full motion advertising and new upselling opportunities. And they will be too good for big retailers to pass up.
We are already seeing this with installations from companies like Cooler Screens and AWM Smart Shelf. And while all those big screens may feel a little Blade Runner-y, grocery shopping will never be boring again.
While I don’t think mobile commerce will go mainstream next year, the pieces are in place to create retail experiences that literally roll up to wherever you are.
On the smaller end, Cheetah Mobile’s FANBOT is a robotic mini convenience store in China. It carries 66 items like snacks and drinks and wanders around high-traffic areas like malls and airports. Customers can stop the FANBOT and buy a drink right on the spot.
On the larger end, Robomart has already started opened its first store-on-wheels concept in the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The grocery version is still a few weeks out, but the premise simple, use your phone to hail the store, which drives to your location. Grab what you want and get charged automatically.
My full story is here.
While 2020 was hard to get through, 2021 is shaping up to be an exciting year, and we can’t wait to bring you all the best food tech news that comes with it.
A special word of thanks.
In all honesty, 2020 was a harsh year for a lot of people and as Editor in Chief of The Spoon, I want to take a moment to say thank you to all our readers.
You stuck with us throughout the year as we launched our Spoon+ membership service and helped us transition our annual Smart Kitchen Summit into a virtual event that was a huge success. We couldn’t have done it without you.
So from everyone here at The Spoon, thank you. Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, thank you for sending us those news tips and thank you for your support. We appreciate it and you and look forward to connecting with you all throughout 2021.
Happy new year!